Ben Lowry: If Dublin is hostile to UK then so be it, but relations cannot stay the same and London must be hard in response

Michel Barnier, EU Brexit negotiator, at the European Parliament with the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. They have taken a joint tough line on the Irish border, which all the key EU figures have supported
Michel Barnier, EU Brexit negotiator, at the European Parliament with the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. They have taken a joint tough line on the Irish border, which all the key EU figures have supported

It must be a challenging political situation when even a man as blunt as Sammy Wilson MP seems to feel the need to be diplomatic.

On Thursday, when Leo Varadkar again started talking in terms of deadlines on the Irish border, Mr Wilson appeared in response to appeal to the Taoiseach’s reason.

The DUP MP for East Antrim told this newspaper that Mr Varadkar’s “border fixation” was blinding him to the “deep trouble” facing the Irish economy. “If a free trade deal is not done between the UK and EU by October, then the Irish economy would be cut off from its main international market – the UK,” Mr Wilson said mildly (his comments a day later, in today’s edition, are more hard hitting).

Mr Wilson’s initial comments about the Irish economy were all very well, but by even making such a point he implied that Mr Varadkar might be persuaded to change his mind as a result of debate.

That time is long past.

There seems to be no hesitation at all in Dublin’s approach to Brexit: one of almost implacable hostility and sneering towards Britain.

Ireland is working hard to maintain a coalition in favour of its hardline position on the border and there is no sign of a lack of solidarity from the EU.

The European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said yesterday: “The onus is now on the British government to propose such a solution. But I want to make it clear once again that the European Parliament will not give its consent to a withdrawal agreement that does not incorporate solutions to rule out hard borders between the two parts of the island and which can be implemented immediately.”

This all goes back to Britain’s weakness in December, when it made foolish commitments.

Why, for example, is the UK so timid as to rule out even CCTV at the border? And why did it get into commitments on avoiding divergence?

It has been clear since the Simon Coveney speech in Belfast in November that Ireland is, in effect, rejecting divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic, not merely a lack of infrastructure at the frontier itself.

While the UK emphatically rejected the recent attempt to enshrine that in law now, and while Theresa May said that a border in the Irish Sea was something no British prime minister could accept, it has not categorically ruled this out as something that will not be considered at any stage of the talks and regardless of whether there is deal, or a need for a backstop, or no deal at all.

This then raises the thought that the UK might be prepared suddenly to agree to a border in the Irish Sea in a year or two, perhaps if it thinks it has a deal and goes for broke and calls an election, or finds itself in another situation in which it feels it can cut free from the DUP.

That is why it was so important to hear that Boris Johnson in a letter to the prime minister had at least been willing to raise the possibility that there might have to be border checks, with an emphasis on the lightest possible touch.

The pragmatic approach to Brexit of Enda Kenny has been cast aside by Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney, and pragmatic voices such as Bertie Ahern on how to respond to the reality of customs and regulatory changes at the land border have not prevailed in Dublin.

Do not be fooled by the fact that Mr Varadkar occasionally makes diplomatic comments about wanting good relations with Britain and a good deal between the UK and EU, or by the occasional reasonable-sounding article in the Daily Telegraph by Mr Coveney.

They are playing the hardest of hardball.

Their position, that Britain went for a Brexit that they did not want and which causes Ireland problems, is not in itself an unreasonable one. But if this then so hardens Ireland’s already partisan, pro nationalist approach to Northern Ireland to the point that they are pushing an intransigent and absolutist position on what the phrase ‘no hard border’ actually means, such that they are almost inviting London to abandon Northern Ireland, then there must be consequences for British-Irish relations.

Almost the only person of authority who has said this is Jacob Rees-Mogg, in an article on these very pages a few weeks ago (see link below), in which he was withering about the current administration in Dublin.

Otherwise, Britain has merely advertised its weakness by not only being mute about the Irish approach, but sometimes singing the praises of London-Dublin relations.

Meanwhile, we got a reminder this week of Ireland’s generally partisan approach to Northern Ireland with the ‘hooded men’ ruling.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg declined by a margin of six judges to one to revisit its previous ruling critical of the treatment of the men by the British authorities in the Troubles (judges are of course impartial, so it is an interesting coincidence that the dissenting judge was Irish).

Dublin wanted the treatment to be designated as torture.

Was Ireland not in receipt of legal advice that the ECHR might reject its bid so comprehensively? If so, why was it bringing a case so unhelpful to Britain and so helpful to the IRA’s narrative on the past?

Some weeks ago I wrote (see link below) about Dublin’s relentless calls over the years for a Pat Finucane inquiry and a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland and an Irish language act — all Sinn Fein pet projects.

Yet there is barely a squeak in return to such calls from the UK.

The ECHR decision should have been cue for an immediate government welcome and scathing comment on Dublin’s role in the case.

This week, when I was in London to report on Sean O’Callaghan’s memorial service (see links below), I talked to a man who is very well connected politically on both sides of the Irish Sea and asked him about such silence from London when Dublin says things that are uncomfortable for Britain. He said it is often rooted in the fact that the UK has so much else to think about, and is not as obsessed with Northern Ireland as are some leaders in the Republic.

That is a partial but inadequate explanation for the silence.

Another one is a politeness that is, I believe, due to the misguided belief in the British government that if you keep smoothing feathers, everything will be OK.

In this political climate, Mr Rees-Mogg’s approach is more apt.

It would be extraordinary in light of Dublin’s recent tough tactics to see Mr Coveney coming up to Stormont to preside jointly over negotiations.

That is why it was reassuring to hear the DUP recently mention observing the strands (ie strand one being internal to Northern Ireland) in relation to any coming talks role for the Republic.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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